By Audrey Coleman
Photography courtesy of Hawaii Symphony Orchestra
It’s not that nobody has ever thought of writing a concerto for the ukulele. In 1999, the Wallingford (Connecticut) Symphony Orchestra commissioned uke player-composer Jim Beloff to write Uke Can’t Be Serious: A Concerto for Ukulele and Symphony, which was performed several times.
Then there’s the Ukulele Concerto by Roy Sakuma performed at Hawaii’s 2011 Ukulele Festival by a youthful orchestra of more than 50 ukuleles. There’s also the work apparently in progress by Alonso del Arte, Ukulele Concerto in A minor, for which the composer was attempting to raise funds over the Internet two years ago.
As worthy as such projects might be, they lack the dynamic trio of musical forces behind Byron Yasui’s Concerto for Ukulele and Orchestra, Campanella, which had its world premiere on June 6 with ukulele superstar Jake Shimabukuro, Yasui, and the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra (HSO), conducted by classical music A-lister JoAnn Falletta. Well before its June premiere, the piece generated excitement in mainland musical circles.
Falletta will conduct it with the Buffalo Philharmonic on November 7 and 8 and the Denver-based Colorado Symphony featured it in its 2015-2016 season. The soloist for these mainland ventures will be Jake Shimabukuro.
For several years, Shimabukuro has been amazing the world with his high-energy ukulele interpretations of everything from Hawaiian instrumentals to the Beatles to Bach. When Falletta phoned him over a year ago to propose that he debut Yasui’s composition with the HSO, he was enthused. A month before the premiere, the 38-year-old musician was brimming with excitement. “Every day I’m discovering something new about the piece, something new about this instrument, something new about myself and Dr. Yasui,” he shares.
Yasui, recalling one of the greatest challenges the uke virtuoso was confronting, adds: “We all know he is a great player technically, but he is also a great musician and a great human being. Jake doesn’t come from a tradition of reading music. He learns his music by rote, by memory. . . . But Jake worked so hard, he’s such a disciplinarian. One day I worked with him at his house for about eight hours with an hour off for lunch. . . . Then, at eight o’clock that night, he worked with the rehearsal pianist till ten o’clock or so. Jake told me the next day that he continued working on the piece until four o’clock in the morning. He’s so driven and so dedicated. He’s been learning to read notes on the staff while working on this piece. This is a new experience for him. And it’s not traditional classical music. It’s contemporary symphonic music with meter changes, complex rhythms, and almost atonal melodies and harmonies.”
The concerto’s subtitle, Campanella, refers to the overlapping, legato style of playing favored by Yasui. The harp-like effect is also reminiscent of resounding bells, hence the use of the Italian word for bell.
Steeped in the traditions of composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and Béla Bartók, Yasui opens the concerto with a fast and feisty first movement that works in a bright funk and rock groove at certain points. The second movement is more lyrical and features a duet for ukulele and harp. Highlights of the third movement, which returns to a brisk pace, include a duet for ukulele and violin as well as a cadenza requiring Shimabukuro to improvise the section unaccompanied.
Although Shimabukuro’s uke is amplified during the performance, Yasui was concerned that the swell of the symphony orchestra might swallow up the ukulele’s sound.
“Because I was aware of the balance problem, whenever the ukulele is playing, just a few instruments are accompanying it,” Yasui said. “But then the full orchestra comes in without the ukulele. . . . There are very few times when the full orchestra is playing along with the ukulele.”
The project originated in the mind of Yasui’s longtime friend and symphony bass player Gary Hickling, who approached the HSO with the idea in early 2014. Executive director Jonathan Parrish secured funding for the commission from the Mayor’s Office on Culture and the Arts, the symphony’s own resources, and individual donors. Those involved in the premiere of Concerto for Ukulele and Orchestra, Campanella consider the event historic.
While the concerto is serious art music for Hawaii’s official instrument, Yasui has embedded a surprise inside joke for ukulele players—the pattern of the open strings of the ukulele commonly known as “my dog has fleas.” He says, “The opening four chords of the concerto are ‘my dog has fleas’ played backwards, and the last four chords you hear at the end are ‘my dog has fleas’ played forwards. I didn’t want to put it in the program notes and let people know in advance.”